Keith Vaz & the HASC inquiry into prostitution

This article (written in late 2016) by Alice Glass gives an insightful analysis of the 2016 Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) inquiry into prostitution and how it shamefully privileged pro-sex industry voices. She calls for higher standards of honesty and integrity among our politicians. Her arguments are as relevant to the current debate as they were to the specific situation she describes. Alice was herself in prostitution for a decade.

In 2016, the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) was bought together under the guiding Chair-hand of Labour MP Keith Vaz (more on him later), to deliberate on the question “What to do about prostitution policy?” The committee sought the council of a variety of sources with different political agendas and positions, most notably (and filmed) that of Dr Brooke Magnanti, who seemed to be there to provide both the academic substance to the proceedings and some vague, passing media interest.

Her role at the particular hearing she attended, with opinion piece writer Paris Lees, involved a lot of referencing of “statistics that say this” and “statistics that don’t say that” quite often without any reference to any specific evidence or studies. She did however, recommend her book, The Sex Myth, for more information, a work that can be described as having at best, tepid and mixed reviews.

Writing for The Telegraph Melanie Mcgrath called the book “…an unwholesome brew of intellectual incoherence and self-delusion.” Helen Lewis of the New Statesman suggested that the book lacked “nuance” and that its “… most important flaw […] is that Magnanti is not as careful in deploying research to advance her arguments as she is in debunking the statistical sleight of hand of others – particularly on prostitution.”

Even one of the book’s most fervent fans – academic Catherine Hakim, who believes women should exploit their appearance to “get ahead” – had to mention that “Magnanti is not an expert in sex research nor a social scientist, and so gets some things wrong. She relies too heavily on her experience…”

‘Even in peer-reviewed research it’s important not to take statements at face value,” she states, while doing precisely that with research which appears to support her views. I listed 23 unsubstantiated assertions in the first four chapters alone. Here are a couple: “It is well known that the majority of street prostitutes in the UK are British and almost all the rest are EU nationals.” No source. “Women take HR treatment to enjoy good sexual health.” No further elucidation.’ ~ Melanie Mcgrath on The Sex Myth by Brooke Magnanti

Indeed, across many reviews of her book, it is a repeated point; that Magnanti is able to dissect the research that would otherwise problematise her world view, but in turn thwarts any notion of scientific neutrality by virtue of her own unqualified assumptions and propositions. There is a point and a purpose to both scientific inquiry and strongly and coherently argued polemic on the subject of prostitution: the criticism pointed at Magnanti is that she either lazily or wilfully comes to the table with the two, at the same time and without differentiation. As, arguably, do large rafts of figureheads and foot soldiers of the sex industry movement.

Now, that is not to say that industry critics have not either; it would be outrageous of me to suggest that any criticism of the industry, and policies for its deregulation, have always occurred in the best possible manifestations. It is called the Fallacy Fallacy; ergo, if an argument has been made by fallacy, that doesn’t mean the underlying assumption is automatically incorrect. The difference between myself – and others like me – and Magnanti and others like her – is that I don’t presume of the also outrageous position of utter neutrality and deficiency of politic or philosophic temperament in all my comings and goings.

It is not possible to actually have an opinion on the sex industry without a political position. In the end, all forms of research need to be understood through the prism of some kind of overarching theory or premise. Magnanti seems to stem from the libertarian school of thinking that supposes of itself an utter amorality, which allows for a support of free market thinking, as it presumes it to be a positional and practical buttress against “ideology.” It is itself ideological. And in that way, dangerous.

It is no mistake then, that those who argue for the free market approach to prostitution, suppose themselves to be wholly basing their theories on material phenomenon, not supposition, even when it is almost bright-red blatantly not the case.

It is also no surprise that their main line of defence in this – defence against critique or scrutiny – is that the position is sought by “sex workers” themselves, and that therefore, whether or not their position is neutral or coherent or otherwise logically convincing, is deemed to be irrelevant. This is a (not) surprisingly successful form of political weaponry.

Indeed, it was in this vein that both Magnanti and fellow columnist (and former prostitute) Paris Lees decided to kick up a stink during the hearing, appropriately when they were asked by the committee about their experience of vulnerable and abused women within the industry and their view on those testimonies. When Paris Lees pressed, rather formidably, on “who??” these testimonies belonged to – and when no names were bought forward – they both proceeded to castigate the committee for only including one current prostitute.

It will come as no surprise to anyone having encountered any form of debate with those who belong, roughly, to the “sex industry lobby” that any question relating to industry exited women – such as Mia de Faoite who also gave testimony in favour of the Nordic Model – might involve some form of derailment. Of course, the fact that exited women like de Faoite criticise the sex industry has to mean – in order for the dogma of “sex workers voices” to be upheld – that hers and other testimonies are not relevant or not worth listening to in some other regard. Indeed Magnanti, in an extremely high emotion piece for Medium, dismisses Faoite’s evidence as irrelevant due to the fact that she experienced prostitution in Ireland and not the UK. Which is somewhat tenuous.

Added, Magnanti did not mention in her piece the fact, as was brought to bear at the committee itself, that Laura Lee[*] – who was the one current prostitute who gave evidence – has been part funded in her anti-Nordic Model campaigns by an escort directory business and has also sought funding to overturn the Sex Buyer Law in Northern Ireland from men who pay for sex – using one of the most visited punter forums in the UK. Indeed her Go Fund Me page features a great many donations from anonymous supporters. One non-anonymous supporter, however, was Steve Elrond, who offered thousands of pounds to assist Ms Lee in fighting for his “legality.” Indeed, a quick peruse over the evidence submitted to the HASC finds (presumably the same) punter Steve Elrond pleading for his right to rent people for sex.

Of course it is a good thing that prostitutes feel better able to express their feelings and thoughts on policy but it is sloppy, to say the least, to uncritically prop up individual prostitutes who claim to “fight for sex worker rights” whilst attempting to end a law against the criminalisation of punters and profiteers, with a campaign at least in part – if not heavily – funded by these very vested interests. If anyone wants to see an example of sex industry figures blurring the lines between prostitute activism and industry lobbyism, this is it.

There are many and varied problems with this notion of “sex worker’s voices” which I do not have time to fully delineate on here. But when Lees and Magnanti derailed the questioning to pursue the idea that the “right people” were not being listened to,  it demonstrated an ability to ignore the very many ex-prostitutes, and some current (although being in the industry by its nature makes it more psychologically, socially and practically difficult to be critical; very many exited people allude to the fact that leaving finally emancipated them to speak openly, reflectively and critically about what happened) whose view do not align with the dogma of industry and profit decriminalisation.

Lees and Magnanti’s assertion was that the “non-sex worker” status (by their definition) of de Faoite and writer, activist and researcher Kat Banyard – who also gave evidence – was extremely problematic, but because their own “non-sex worker status” aligned with the political views and agenda of a sex industry deregulation movement, it didn’t really matter quite so much.

Magnanti even cited lobby organisations such as the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) (an organisation whose primary cause is decriminalising profiteering) who might have provided better weight to the “evidence.” What this points to, is that is isn’t “sex worker’s voices” that are important but the ideologies themselves, and those who should be given the privilege of the megaphone are those “sex workers” former or present, or allies by virtue of personal or vested economic interest, who are willing to propagate it.

Added, and most worryingly of all, the ideology is being guarded by the idea that any critique forms the basis of bigotry. As one “David Anonymous” – offering donation to Laura Lee’s cause to decriminalise punters in Northern Ireland – pointed out with aplomb, “Good luck with your fight, particularly against the NI biggots.” Spelling error his.

Keith Vaz, MP

When Keith Vaz was discovered to have sought to rent sexual favours from two migrant men (and seems to have offered to buy cocaine for them and poppers for himself) it disrupted the lukewarm response to the largely agreed upon modest reforms that the HASC suggested. It proposed a decriminalisation of soliciting (and thus of street walkers) and a wiping of the slate of prostitute’s criminal records. It was ground safely and stoically observed to be popular on all sides and thus, on its own, politically shrewd.

There were critiques of its dismissal of the Nordic Model and its long term suggestion to consider industry decriminalisation, but in all, the response to the report was muted because the actual propositions, not its wider problems and suggestions, were uncontroversial. Seas seemed calm.

When Vaz was exposed, the sex industry lobby went into full flurry mode, because those within it knew that the rejection of the Nordic Model would be newly viewed in relation to Vaz’s sex buying, from many quarters. Some sought to affirm that the report could still be credited however the basis made for this is no more than the pro-industry and problematic “listen to sex workers” rhetoric itself, which has little or nothing to do with whether or not there is a problem with an undeclared vested interest chairing the report.

Some pointed out that Vaz has previously supported the Nordic Model, using pop psychology to play to the idea that he is some kind of Fred Phelps character, obsessing over the criminalisation of punters as a response to his own desire to rent people for sex. However – seductive and prime time American drama though that is – his support for the Nordic Model could hardly be described as consistent, obsessive or easy to pin down. In 2014 he sat on the APPG panel, where he was a non-chair member in a group of 27, which proposed the Nordic Model. In 2016 he sat on the HASC panel where he was the chair member in a group of 11 that, indeed, more or less rejected the Nordic Model. What to make of that? Probably not much.

Of course Magnanti, and others, have sought to argue that Vaz’s sudden change of mind, is a result of the virtuoso of her and other industry ideologue’s testimony. Even in arrogance, that seems rather a stretch.

It could be more sensibly argued, as the others outside of the political debates surrounding prostitution have done, that Vaz is simply a duplicitous, slippery, megalomaniac character whose views, self presentation and position cannot be trusted.

How often has Vaz paid for sex? When did it start? Has he always supported the Nordic Model? Has he always not supported it? Has he seen it as politically advantageous to do so at some times and not at others? How much influence did he exert on both committees? Is he actually just some Trumpian figure who believes and cares about nothing other than his own career trajectory? Added to that possible narcissism, is he also willing to oscillate wildly and quickly between different forms of policies or values because he imagines, simply, that they won’t extend to him? Questions, questions – and if you care about Vaz with respect of details of this report – no clear answers.

Look, I have been involved in the sex industry on and off for many years, and I have in the last year written, studied and thought extensively about it. But, in the end, it is not with respect to the sex industry only that this sticky business of Keith Vaz, and his almost shockingly exquisite Janus Face, is so bothersome.

The general public – general as in of all political stripes and persuasions – struggles to trust politicians, doesn’t see them as honourable members of the community whose integrity and intelligence of vision can be seen to represent us or care for our needs. Perhaps, because they talk often about being in Power, not Political Representation. Perhaps also, because of the perception of politicians as serpentine circumnavigators of their own manifestos (ahem *Liberal Democrats*), whose game-playing serves to undermine the whole concept of parliamentary democracy. You have to know what someone believes, at least broadly, to vote for them or trust in appealing to them.

If they’re outright bloody liars whose political capriciousness comes served with a personal side ordering of self gratification, self indulgence and scandal, they are not fit for purpose. Vaz’s duplicity, in and of itself, is what fundamentally unseats his position as a public servant, an occupation paid up by the public purse. Some may argue that it is a private matter – an argument made ridiculous by the specifics of the case – but this is also to ignore the position of politicians more generally. These are people paid handsomely, in taxes, well above the average earnings of a British citizen (not to mention the expenses and second homes) who require no specific qualifications or experience to do the job. You don’t have to be a saint, or a political hero. You don’t have to solve all the problems or fight a war (and win) or reclaim the Empire or Make Britain Great or any other of the egocentric fantasies that some of you politicians no doubt have.

You can just be honest, and vaguely consistent.

You are also not being asked to only drink green juice, forego gluten, never have sex, get drunk, fart, have a predilection for Status Quo or The Wombles, never go on holiday, or ever again make a silly face lest it gets snapped and shoved up on Have I Got News For You for yucks. You are just being asked – as a representative of a wide variety of politically minded people – to avoid ethically and legally contentious behaviours and to Tell The Truth as you understand it.

Being a politician might be difficult, but it is still one of the greatest privileges that anyone can have bestowed upon them, and it comes with responsibilities and sacrifices. In order for our parliamentary democracy to work we need at least to vaguely trust in its operators. It does not instil much trust when a politician such as Vaz, can be found to be as trustworthy as cat with a goldfish, and yet still sweep in to the Justice Committee of all things, with 203 MPs agreeing to only 7 in dissent. That doesn’t sound like he is being made accountable.

Westminster, you need to pluck the bugs off of your salad bed, if you want us to eat it with relish.

[*] This piece was written in late 2016. Sadly, Laura Lee died on 7 February 2018

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